Malpractice Consult

Article excerpt

Your liability as part of the "team"

I've been sued as a member of the team that supervises the emergency room at my small community hospital. A patient I'd never seen claims I had a duty to oversee his care in the ER. Could I be found liable for the injury he says he suffered as a result of improper treatment there? Probably not. You, the patient, and other ER physicians may be deposed and can testify that you never saw the patient. That's likely to get you dismissed from the lawsuit. In most jurisdictions, the judge would rule that, not having been on the scene, you didn't owe the patient a duty of care. In a recent case, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that leaders of a hospital trauma team had no duty to oversee personally the treatment of all patients who receive care from the team. The case involved a patient who suffered a cervical injury in a motor-vehicle accident and was treated by a surgical resident. After several attempts to establish a non-surgical airway, the resident and an anesthesiologist created a surgical one.

The patient suffered extensive paralysis and sued, charging that the team's attempts to create a non-surgical airway had aggravated his injury. He also claimed that the team leaders, who had consulted with the resident by phone, should have gone to the hospital and overseen the treatment. Because they hadn't, he contended, they should be held liable for the alleged negligence of any lower-ranking team member. The trial court disagreed. So did the state Supreme Court. It refused to recognize any duty of the team leaders to participate personally in the treatment of every patient in the ER. Such a requirement, the court held, would be untenable when many persons are injured in a mass disaster.

What if the patient had alleged inadequate supervision of the emergency department? Court decisions have gone both ways. Some judges have ruled that supervising physicians can't be held accountable for malpractice unless a plaintiff can prove inadequate credentialing procedures.

However, other courts have upheld claims against supervising physicians. The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that supervising physicians play a vital role in patient care even when they don't have any contact with the patient. The court allowed plaintiffs to present evidence that negligent supervision contributed to a patient's injuries.

If you're in a supervisory position, phone in regularly and ask about any potential problems. …